Anywhere but in Bath
This month, the Austens are making an early start.
After a travellers’ breakfast on this cool, bright morning, they are making for the White Hart Inn in Cheap Street, a stone’s throw from the Abbey Churchyard, to take their places on the Taunton Mail. Alas – this coaching hostelry, which features in “Persuasion” as the backdrop to the Musgroves’ family party and Anne Elliot’s poignant defence to Harville on the constancy of women, has been pulled down. But Cheap Street still leads us down to Stall Street and the site of the old South Gate of the medieval city, over the bridge across the Avon and up the steady incline of the Wells Road – or “the Wellsway” as it is now called. This would have been the Austens’ holiday route from Bath to Wells and thence to Taunton, Exeter and the sea.
Though well connected, the Austens were far from wealthy and Jane, Cassandra and their elderly parents almost certainly travelled by a public stagecoach, which would lumber along at the – to them – brisk pace of eight miles an hour. If the summer had been dry, with any luck the annual exodus down to the wilder shores of the West Country could take only a couple of days. Only? Only a couple of days of rutted road in an unsprung coach, with at least one overnight stop in a strange bed. Many retired folk would have stayed safe at home. But the Austen parents appear to have been game old birds when it came to travel. Despite his relatively advanced age, the Reverend George Austen’s distinguished silver-haired figure would be seen every September leading his womenfolk away from the fleshpots of Bath, like a benign and tidy Old Testament Prophet, to seek new scenes and fresh faces. He must have been cheered to see his daughter Jane regain her old spirits as the streets and squares of Bath were left behind.
It is no secret that Jane loved this time of year the best of all. Her future heroine Anne Elliot, was to speak for her creator when she was made to “dread the possible heats of September in all the white glare of Bath“. In addition, Anne grieved at the possibility of having to forgo all the influences, so sweet and so sad, of the autumnal months in the country.” Jane had had a longing for the sea for many months. In her letters of 1801, the year of the move to Bath, she had salved the wound of her loss of the Hampshire countryside with anticipation of “summers by the sea or in Wales”. If they were going to have to go to Bath to live, at least Bath would be nearer to the Dorset or Devon coast. She would perhaps be able to enjoy the glories of the changing leaves under a peacock sky and beside an azure sea.
The Austens seemed to have visited fashionable Sidmouth in 1801, quaint Dawlish and mellow Teignmouth in 1802. They discovered the jewel of west Dorset, Lyme Regis, in the mild St Martin’s summer of November, 1803. The march of headlands to the east, peaking with Golden Cap and the sweep of Lyme Bay make this a particularly open-armed, large-scaled piece of the coastline. To the west is the tumbled exotic jungle of Pinhay or Pinny as Jane called knew it, with its “green chasms between romantic rocks, scattered trees and orchards of luxuriant growth“. By contrast, Lyme itself is cherished by the sturdy arm of the harbour wall which is known as the Cobb. A curious set of rungs acting as steps between the Cobb’s levels seem to have set Jane’s imagination working. Here, maybe, some gallant Captain could show an endearing vulnerability. Perhaps he could fail to catch a flirtatious young lady as she jumped down. She could hear him exclaim “Oh God, her father and mother!” and the young lady would lie there, still and white but not dead. There would be no tragedy in her books. All would be revealed to be a work of Providence. Jane Austen walked on the wall and considered, her imagination taking off with the billowing clouds and the tumbling waves. It was good to get away from the city.
Born in 1775, Jane saw both the high water of the Age of Reason and the turn of the tide into Romanticism. Tourism for the leisured classes was undergoing a revolution. Until 1800, “taking the waters” at Bath had provided a “rest cure” that was entirely eighteenth century in concept a chance to meet and greet like-minded urbane folk in a cultured and elegant environment, to promenade with them by day and dance with them by night, in a well-ordered, mutually agreeable and preordained social ritual. Now, in the opening years of the nineteenth century, the craving for something grander, more sublime was in the air. The Wordsworthian concept of the “huge and mighty forms” of nature, Byronic longings for those qualities of wildness and remoteness which bring you to a greater knowledge of yourself, were for the first time connected with the idea of a holiday excursion.
Jane Austen, the sceptical teenager of the Age of Reason, was to show herself in later life a true romantic or even a Romantic with a capital R in the literary sense.. Like Anne Elliott, she had been forced into prudence in her youth she learnt romance as she grew older the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” After Jane’s death, Cassandra scribbled in the margin next to these words in her own copy of “Persuasion” – “Dear, dear Jane this deserves to be written in letters of gold”.
What exactly was the romance in any sense of the word that attracted Jane to this stretch of coast? “And a very strange stranger it must be who does not feel charms in the immediate environs of Lyme and wish to know it better..” What on earth does she mean when she says here, in a letter of 1804, from Lyme to Cassandra in nearby Sidmouth, that it was “absolutely necessary for me to have the little fever and indisposition which has been all the fashion this week at Lyme”? Were her pulses racing simply at the rolling of what Byron calls “The deep and dark blue ocean”, or was there some other, more human factor at Lyme that affected the normally ironic, detached Jane?
Why do we suspect her of a coded message? Only because of the long-held legend in the family of Aunt Jane’s West Country romance, a faded rosebud thrown down by Cassandra to the nieces, possibly to stop their impertinent curiosity over their famous aunt’s love life. But oddly, Jane was to echo that exact phrase “little fever” when writing of Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove’s infatuation with Captain Wentworth. With them, “it was not love, it was a little fever of admiration, but it might, probably must, end in love with some.”
But perhaps we are being fanciful. Perhaps Jane’s “Romance” was purely in her responses to the natural world. Maybe she simply yearned for the sight and sounds of “the waves that make towards the pebbled shore,” reminding us how “our minutes hasten to their end” – according to Shakespeare. Forty-one years is not long enough to saunter along the shore, travel-stained and stiff-limbed, to untie one’s bonnet strings to get the hem of one’s gown recklessly wet as one walks along the very edge of the land. Eternity is not long enough to linger and gaze as all must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who deserve to look upon it at all.
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